Russia targets bigger swathe of Ukraine as US decries Kremlin ‘annexation’ plans

Kyiv to receive more US Himars rocket systems to strike deep in occupied territory

Russia has said it is expanding its military aims in Ukraine and intends to take full control of a swathe of territory in its east, south and potentially beyond, as the US warned that Moscow plans to hold “sham” referendums in occupied areas to legitimise its land grab.

Russian shelling killed several people in government-held cities including Kharkiv and Nikopol, and Washington pledged to send Kyiv more of the powerful rocket systems that its army has used to strike the supply lines of Moscow’s forces and a key bridge in occupied territory.

After being forced to abandon a bid to seize Kyiv after launching its full-scale invasion on February 24th, Russia said it would “liberate” the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of eastern Ukraine, where it recognised the independence of Moscow-run breakaway areas known as the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics (DPR and LPR).

“Now the geography is different. It is far from being just the DPR and LPR, it is also Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions and a number of other territories,” foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said on Wednesday, naming two provinces in south-eastern Ukraine that are partly held by Russian troops.


“This process continues ... logically and determinedly,” he said, accusing western powers – particularly the US and Britain – of flooding Ukraine with weapons that could menace Russia.

“Therefore, we cannot allow the part of Ukraine that will be controlled by [President Volodymyr] Zelenskiy, or by whoever replaces him, to have weapons that will pose a direct threat to our territory” or to the Moscow-run breakaway areas, Mr Lavrov added.

For critics of the Kremlin in Ukraine and elsewhere, Mr Lavrov’s comments were more evidence that Russia is intent on destroying its neighbour, at least in its present form, and stealing as much territory as possible, under the guise of a “special operation” to demilitarise and “denazify” a pro-western democracy of more than 40 million people.

“We’re seeing ample evidence in the intelligence and in the public domain that Russia intends to try to annex additional Ukrainian territory,” following its occupation of Crimea in 2014, said John Kirby, spokesman for the White House’s national security council.

“Russia is installing illegitimate proxy officials in areas of Ukraine that are under its control…First, these proxy officials will arrange sham referenda on joining Russia. Then, Russia will use those sham referenda as a basis to try to claim annexation of sovereign Ukrainian territory,” he added.

“If Russia nevertheless proceeds with their annexation plans … Russia will face additional sanctions and become even more of a global pariah than it is now.”

Ukraine’s military says it is broadly holding its defensive positions in Donbas and preparing a counterattack in Kherson and Zaporizhzhia; recent strikes from US-supplied Himars rocket systems on the Antonivskyi bridge have severely damaged the span over the Dnieper river, which is an important supply route in Kherson for Russia’s forces.

The US said four more of the long-range, highly accurate and mobile Himars systems will be part of its next package of military aid for Ukraine, which would take the total supplied to 16.

Daniel McLaughlin

Daniel McLaughlin

Daniel McLaughlin is a contributor to The Irish Times from central and eastern Europe